Sun, surf, sand ... but deadly jellyfish cast shadow on Phuket

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 November, 2008, 12:00am

The woman screams, runs out of the water onto Patong beach, rolls on the sand and dies in agony within three minutes. She has been stung by a box jellyfish.

The wounds from the tentacles are shocking. Within a month, tourists stop coming, resorts begin to close. The sea is alive with the creatures. Phuket's holiday heaven is at an end.

That's the nightmare scenario triggered by the discovery of the fearsome box jellyfish on the island's east coast and the death of a Swedish tourist off the neighbouring destination of Krabi in April.

Nobody can say for sure that this scenario will happen. But nobody can say with certainty that it won't, either.

Two kinds of box jellyfish have suddenly appeared in the Andaman region, expanding their territory and turning up in numbers in places where they were previously unknown. While the jellyfish seem to prefer shallow tidal foreshores near mangroves, marine biologists, health officials and the entire tourism industry have become deeply concerned about what might happen next.

Virtually every day that researchers check, immature box jellyfish are being found near an east coast mangrove forest at Nam Bor Bay, about 4km from the island's capital, Phuket City.

On Wednesday last week, three were caught in two small stake traps set by local fishermen. On Thursday, after heavy rain, there were 10 more in the traps.

On Friday, Somchai Bussarawit, the chief of the museum and aquarium at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, set out with a sample box jellyfish to survey fishermen along the east coast.

Local scientists don't yet know much about the jellyfish - first discovered off Phuket in July - including the scale of the infestation. But if two small traps net the jellyfish regularly, it's probable that thousands more are already in the water. 'This is all new to us,' said Dr Somchai, who is now finding out all he can about the marine creature.

It is only when a Thai reporter and I are in the waters of Nam Bor Bay, watching as a colleague of Dr Somchai takes box jellyfish from the traps, that we notice the two marine scientists are in long trousers and shoes, while the two reporters are bare-legged and bare-footed.

That's one of the key issues for anyone paddling around in the sea off Phuket these days: perhaps people should be told more about the box jellyfish, for their own safety. Are the stings of the tennis-ball sized, immature creatures dangerous?

Dr Somchai smiles: that's a matter for further research - and something none of us are keen to find out for ourselves. After our paddle in the water late last month and the article that followed, the director of the marine biological centre, Vannakiat Thubthimsaeng, quickly alerted tourism groups, hospitals, local authorities and the island's new governor to the presence of the jellyfish.

While Phuket's popular west coast beaches remain clear of the creatures for now, they have already proved themselves to be highly adaptable. One of the two varieties has a single tentacle, a single eye, and can propel itself by swimming through the water, Dr Somchai says.

Unsurprisingly, the discovery of the box jellyfish has also raised concern about the reporting of drownings and marine attacks. As all three box jellyfish deaths reported in Thai waters since 2002 have been foreign tourists, speculation is rife that many more Thais might have died. Phuket's marine biologists have sounded the alert and are now handing out bottles of vinegar, the only effective treatment for box jellyfish sting, yet other local officials have often proved keen not to alarm tourists.

In August, Hong Kong visitor Vinncci Wai Chi-chan was with her family on a weekend excursion to the small outlying island of Yao Noi when she was attacked by a stingray. 'The pain was unbearable,' said the school teacher 'I have never known such agony.'

Stingrays had made a return in numbers to the island's waters after an absence of several years. But the locals neglected to tell the tourists. In Australia, tourists are usually warned about the presence of dangerous creatures.

After the death of the Swedish girl in April, Peter Fenner of Australia's James Cook University told the Phuket marine biologists: 'Making the knowledge of this possible danger public will not detract in the long term from Thailand tourism, whereas ignoring it - with subsequent deaths of tourists - will.'

As with marine attacks, drownings are also believed to often go unreported.

Seeking to break the conspiracy of silence is Jayne MacDougall, newly appointed director of Risk Management and Loss Prevention at Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort. She helped to organise Patong's first Australian-style surf lifesaving carnival last month, and says: 'What's needed is a change in culture and education about how to swim and how to save people at pools and beaches.'

Stingray victim Ms Wai recovered quickly with painkillers and treatment at a local clinic. A nurse told her that there is usually only one stingray strike in a year.

'I have suffered this year's attack, so everyone can now swim safely,' she joked.

Dr Somchai is consulting Australian experts to find out more about the Phuket box jellyfish and organising the distribution of vinegar to resorts and dive companies.

At one stage last year, officials at Ocean Park in Hong Kong offered to teach Phuket marine biologists about box jellyfish, but there was no funding. 'I visited them personally,' Dr Somchai said.

He is to visit the provincial governor tomorrow, who will decide afterwards what course of action should be taken.